Since I left San Diego 18 years ago--first for San Francisco, then for New York City--bashing the food in my hometown has become a favorite pastime of mine. My family still lives there, but I all but quit going to restaurants on my visits home in the mid-1990s after I was served an entrée with a number of inedible objects poking out of architecturally-stacked ingredients on a plate with a sauce-dotted rim. The idea of buying fresh seasonal ingredients and leaving them alone seemed to have gotten caught in traffic on its way down from Los Angeles.
When I did go out to eat in San Diego, I went to the same places over and over again, like Point Loma Seafoods, a restaurant and takeout shop on the docks of the city's biggest sailing community. Point Loma Seafoods is one of those places where people are willing to wait in line just to park, then take a number and stand in another line to order. Everything they make is delicious. The fried fish and chips are crispy and not too greasy. But I usually got either a crab or smoked yellowfin tuna sandwich--lumps of fish spread between sliced sourdough moistened with just a little tartar sauce--and ordered seviche and more smoked fish to take with me. Sitting outside with my lunch on a plastic tray, I looked out at a mass of sailboat masts and, behind them, the downtown skyline, which seemed to change and expand with every visit.
And I never left town without having my stepdad take me to The Waterfront for a juicy half-pound burger served with a tray of condiments, from sweet pickle relish to jalapeños. Founded in the 1920s, The Waterfront is the oldest bar in San Diego. Photographs plastered along its walls--including a few of my stepdad, a former state senator, on the campaign trail with John F. Kennedy--chronicle the city's history. And regulars at The Waterfront--politicians, businessmen, fishermen, marines and construction workers--reflect the diversity of the city.
I'd resigned myself to the fact that my definition of fine dining, considered snobbery by my San Diego friends and family, kept me from enjoying more upscale restaurants. So I was surprised--and relieved--on my most recent visit to hear the murmur of words like "seasonal" and "sustainable" and the faint rumblings of change. A handful of chefs, all new to town, have taken on the challenge of introducing this meat-and-potatoes community to the kind of cooking that begins and ends with good ingredients.
If any one person gets credit for spearheading the movement here, it's Trey Foshee. After winning an F&W Best New Chef award in 1998, he was recruited to be chef and partner at George's at the Cove on Prospect Street, the main drag in La Jolla, which borders a craggy, dramatic portion of the Pacific and is one of the few streets in San Diego County where you'd want to take an after-dinner stroll. The more casual upstairs restaurant, George's Ocean Terrace, has long been my favorite place in the area--and the only dining option, other than the shacks, I never gave up on. The open-air room, the lively crowd and the light, Southern California cuisine (now also overseen by Foshee) capture the essence of San Diego.
Foshee chose to join the 18-year-old George's because he thought San Diego had "so much possibility." That's a nice way of saying chefs weren't doing a whole lot with what the area offered. The first thing Foshee did when he got here was drive 10 miles up the coast from La Jolla to Chino Farms, famous for its spectacular, unusual varieties of vegetables. Wolfgang Puck, of Los Angeles's Spago, named a chopped salad after the farm, and Alice Waters has its produce flown twice a week to Chez Panisse, 500 miles north in Berkeley. Foshee was surprised to find that only one local chef, Martin Woesle of Mille Fleurs, a traditional French restaurant down the road from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, was regularly using the farm's vegetables. Foshee makes the trek to Chino daily, and his commitment shows. His favorite appetizer, he says, is strawberry figs (a rare, red-fleshed variety) from Chino, which he halves, drizzles with 100-year-old balsamic vinegar and tops with goat cheese and Chino arugula sprouts. But Foshee doesn't merely depend on the quality of Chino produce to make sure his dishes are memorable. His delicate leek-and-watercress soup, with a fried oyster and a dollop of cool apple puree, is a study in contrasting textures and sweet and savory flavors.
In addition to Chino, Be Wise Ranch, 20 miles north of San Diego, has grown beautiful and exotic varieties of produce--including 30 types of heirloom tomato--for 25 years. Most of that time, it shipped its goods to chefs in Chicago and New York. Today, three San Diego chefs also buy its produce, including Jeff Jackson, who moved to San Diego from Los Angeles last spring. Jackson left Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica to open A. R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, an ambitious new Arts and Craftsstyle hotel that sprawls along the Torrey Pines Golf Course, which is known as one of the best public golf courses in the country. In order to lure locals, the wine-list prices are only doubled instead of tripled or quadrupled, as is usual (appropriate, given that Price Club was founded nearby). Still, the wood-paneled dining room, with its rounded booths, looks and feels like a country club. "I'm not impressed," my sister said as we sat down for dinner, which is the first thing a San Diegan is likely to say when she senses someone is trying to impress her.
Fortunately, Jackson's extremely pared-down food was outstanding. "I have no sauces to hide behind," he says. I ordered braised veal cheeks, which were rich and delicious, served with what Jackson calls "white puree"--a mix of celery root, parsnips and turnips simmered in milk--and a single roasted carrot. When I asked Jackson about the wisdom of serving such unfussy food in a city where a restaurant is often judged purely on whether you get your money's worth, he reminded me of the plate of fresh vegetables served family style with every dinner--free. I had to concede that the creamed spinach and roasted white carrots my sister and I had gratis were wonderful; we'll see if other San Diegans are as appreciative.
While A. R. Valentien is a destination restaurant, about a half-hour drive from downtown, Chive is smack in the middle of the revived Gaslamp Quarter, otherwise riddled with mediocre Italian restaurants. My San Diego friends told me Chive was "very New York," which made me suspicious. It's been open for two years, but it wasn't until this past winter, when the owners decided they wanted to have inventive food to match the trendsetting young crowd, that they recruited A. J. Voytko, who had spent three years as a sous-chef at George's at the Cove.
I was surprised to find the sleek and modern room, with its white-painted brick and orange backlit bar, to be very New York. But I was even more surprised by the food. Some of Voytko's dishes show the influence of Trey Foshee, his mentor, like the well-executed duck "two ways"--breast and confit with a sweet-and-tart rhubarb and caramelized honey jus. Other dishes suggest he has absorbed lessons from around the world, such as an Italian bread-and-asparagus salad with golden raisins, pine nuts and pecorino and a North African fennel-seed-and-coriander-crusted lamb loin with harissa gnocchi and Medjool dates.
Over the years, one of my favorite jabs at San Diego--because it went straight to the heart of why people like the city--was that it's too laid-back. I want to do something in the world, I'd say. How could anything interesting happen in a city people move to for the weather? So it's ironic that the best meal I had in San Diego was at a restaurant with a chef who moved here for just that reason.
Laurel is a vast, elegant space in a former bank located next to Balboa Park, San Diego's largest, which houses many museums and gardens and the famous San Diego Zoo. Laurel draws probably the most sophisticated clientele of any restaurant in San Diego, busy with business lunches and both pretheater and late-night dinners.
Before chef Jason Shaeffer came to Laurel a year and a half ago, he was hired by David Bouley for Danube in New York City. But Manhattan wasn't for him. After just two days of apartment hunting in the afternoon and sweating it out in the Danube kitchen in the evening, Shaeffer decided to move west. It's not that he couldn't make it in New York; he just didn't see the point.
As hard as it is for me to understand that, I would agree that Shaeffer didn't need to spend more time training. His crisp sweetbread salad with white asparagus and black truffle vinaigrette was perfect, as was a Moroccan-spiced rack of lamb served with an eggplant-and-tomato tagine. Though the meal was excellent, I don't think I'm ready to move back to San Diego anytime soon--but it is certainly time to start eating out when I visit.
Carolynn Carreño is a writer living in New York City.